The Cardinals haven't seized the opportunity to lock up the NL Central crown in the last few weeks. Starters Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller haven't been up to par lately and the offense has been spotty at best.
All that said, the Cardinals began play on Thursday only one game out of first place, behind the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Cardinals still have the talent and ability to win the NL Central and avoid the one-game playoff that the two wild-card teams will have to play to decide who will move on.
Here are three keys for the Cardinals to make a big push down the stretch.
The starting pitching, outside of Joe Kelly, has been poor as of late. Ace Adam Wainwright got tossed around like a rag doll in his last two starts against the Reds. Wainwright surrendered 15 earned runs to the Reds while pitching only eight innings.
Shelby Miller in his last seven starts has a record of 2-2, an ERA of 4.59 and only pitched six innings one time in those seven starts.
Lance Lynn is showing the same thing he showed in the second half of last year, where he really struggled to pitch effectively. In his last seven starts, Lynn is 1-4 with a 5.23 ERA and that does not count his latest start in Cincinnati where he surrendered three home runs.
If the Cardinals are going to capture the division, they need to have better starting pitching to get to a bullpen that has been very solid as of late. With the likes of Kevin Siegrist, Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica, among others, the Cardinals have a very solid bullpen to keep a late-inning lead.
The starters are going to have to have more quality starts to give the team a chance to win and not always leaving the team to be playing from behind.
The Cardinals have got to figure out a way to put more runs up on the board.
As of game time on Thursday, the Cardinals have posted a 2-5 record in their last seven games, all against the Reds or Pirates. In their five losses, the Cardinals have scored a meager three runs. In their two wins, the Cards have put a much more palatable 12 runs.
Mike Matheny has done a much better job in resting Carlos Beltran and as such, the drop-off in production seen in 2012 has yet to surface in 2013. But outside of Matt Carpenter and Beltran, the Cardinals are not hitting well.
Add to that Allen Craig's foot sprain and the Cardinals are in search of someone to step up and drive in some runs down the stretch. The Cardinals start a crucial three-game series with the Pirates on Friday and they will need to hit well to win the series, especially since the Pirates virtually shut the Cardinals offense down last weekend.
With a nice chunk of sub-.500 opponents coming up after the Pittsburgh series, hopefully the Cardinals bats will have come to life.
After the Pittsburgh series is complete this weekend, the Cardinals will play 16 of their next 19 games against teams that are under .500.
It is imperative the Cardinals win each series going forward, including the Nationals series (the only team above .500 in the 19-game stretch).
Frankly, the Cardinals need to win at least 12 of the last 19 plus take two of three in Pittsburgh to win the Central, in my opinion.
If the Cardinals can take advantage of their schedule after the Pittsburgh series, they will benefit from the Pirates and Reds beating up each other six times over their last nine games.
It is still very doable for the Cardinals to win the NL Central and if they can shore up a few items and win the games they should, look for the NL Central crown to come back to St. Louis.